From the pages of

Year 21 now playing at Circa 21


Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse director and owner Dennis Hitchcock poses above in front of the landmark in The District in Rock Island. The playhouse celebrated its 20th year in 1997.

Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse celebrated its 20th anniversary last June and like a fine wine, it's getting better with time.

``I myself feel extremely fortunate to have been have been able to work for the past 20 years in a profession I love with so many talented people,'' said Dennis Hitchcock, founder and director of Circa. ``We've received tremendous support from the people in the Quad-Cities. We would be nowhere without them.''

The seeds of Circa were sown in the mid-'70s when Mr. Hitchcock first proposed the concept of a dinner theater to a local financial institution.

``I attended a conference on the dinner theater concept in Milwaukee and there it was discussed what markets had proven the most successful,'' he said. ``To me, there were describing the Quad-Cities. I knew it would fit in here.''

``At the bank they told me that theaters and restaurants have the highest failure rate -- why would I want to combine the two? But I was lucky to meet a loan officer who had a lot of confidence in the idea.''

Mr. Hitchcock purchased the Fort Theater at a time when downtown movie theaters had sunk to an all-time low. ``At the time we purchased the theater, in the summer of '76, it was being used as a porno house. It had died as a regular movie theatre in 1972 after the (Showcase) Cinemas opened.''

The building itself was not in the best of shape. ``Not much had been done to it in 20 years. It hadn't been well kept. I bought it from the son and daughter of the man who built it, Walter Rosenfield. He was also involved in building the Fort Armstrong Hotel.''

One of the first chores Mr. Hitchcock attended to was converting the movie theater into a playhouse suitable for live theater.

``The interior was pretty grim,'' he said. ``We repainted, rewired and replumbed. Since it was last used as a movie theater, the screen had to come down and the seats had to come out. There were no theatrical lighting positions, so we had to put those in. And we had to build the tiers and tables -- that was the biggest project.''

Reclaiming the building's original 1920s ambiance was a challange that had to have the right balance. ``We tried to recapture it without being too ornate.''

The Circa Dinner Theater idea was one that worked right from the beginning and maintained its momentum through the recession in the early 1980s.

``Add to that the fact that between 1982 and 1985, one-third of all theaters in the country went bankrupt,'' Mr. Hitchcock said. ``Yet Circa survived and thrived.''

One of the reasons it works, he said, is because everything is in one location.

``You only have to park once for the entire evening,'' he said. ``You can have a drink, dinner, dessert and watch a show without leaving your seat.

``Our shows are for entertainment's sake, not education's sake, like regional theater. The Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Goodman in Chicago can put on more serious productions because they get grant money and not-for-profit funding. Circa is a business, and our concept must appeal to everybody from all walks of life.''

A Circa audience is nearer to a television audience, he explained.

Even with its clear-cut agenda, Circa has successfully diversified.

``In 1987, we had our first national tour,'' Mr. Hitchcock said. ``Our seventh national tour, `Big River,' went to 46 states and had 38 company members. That required two buses and two trucks.''

Circa's eighth national tour, ``Cowgirls,'' is in the works.

Another feather in Circa's cap is the competitive improvisation team called Comedy Sportz, now in its sixth year. ``We hosted the national Comedy Sportz tournament last August when 120 players came to compete from around the country,'' Mr. Hitchcock said. The local team won.

Circa also has its own Scene Shop, on Myrtle Street in Davenport. ``It's where we do all our scene building, and its doubles as a rehearsal space when we have ongoing productions here in the theater.''

Circa's children's productions began in 1978, and Circa has been producing two a year ever since. ``This year we actually have three children's shows. Our children's shows have been really well-received, I think, because they are often a child's first exposure to live theater. Again, that's due to the nature of the programming we do,'' Mr. Hitchcock said.

A lot of former company members have moved on in a big way, and Mr. Hitchcock said he finds it very satisfying.

``Larry Wolpe who was with us for `I Do, I Do' has gone on to work on Broadway and in television. Another Circa alumni, choreographer Susan Stroman, has won two Tony Awards. Scenic designer Michael Merritt is now working on Broadway, and actor Fred Applegate, who appeared at Circa as Tevye in ``Fiddler On the Roof,'' moved on to work at the Guthrie and then the ``Newhart Show'' on television.

Like a well-tended garden, Circa's upkeep is never-ending. ``We recarpeted throughout the building right after Christmas. We also repainted the lobby and got some new wireless microphones.''

The latest layer of greasepaint was just in time for Circa's lastest production of ``Grease!'' which runs through March 21. ``It should be a knockout. We saw our biggest advance winter sales in the history of the theater.''

-- By Lisa Mohr (January 26, 1998)

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